EH: Did some kids actually put their heads down and sleep?
VB: Oh yes. This happens here, there and everywhere, it is nothing new. When I was going to Central, I don’t think I was thinking about going to college. I was thinking more about the monetary side, how my family would be able to afford my going to college. So I wasn’t thinking about college. I was thinking on another level to get into something else. I can remember going to my counselor and asking about this. No counselor ever said to me that I would make an excellent doctor or lawyer. I’m not sure how I could have done it, but I never had one of them push me into that area. I remember speaking with my mother about this and she said, “You can be anything and do anything you want to do with the help of God.” I was offered a job at the last of my sophomore year, which kids didn’t usually get until their junior year, at Lincoln Life. I had the opportunity to get this job as a sophomore. An attorney called and told me they wanted to hire me that summer to work. My last name fooled them. I remember walking into the office, not for an interview because I had already been hired through school but no one had met me there. I remember walking in for my appointment and was waiting to sign the papers for employment. The secretary said, “We have one person coming before you.” I said ok, but it kind of stunned me because I knew this was my appointment time. Something made me ask the secretary if the person coming was from my school because the only two schools involved were Central and South Side. She said, “Miss Van Pelt should be here now.” I said, “I am Miss Van Pelt.” That experience kind of changed my thinking of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I got the job and could have worked for them later in life.
EH: Just a moment. How did the secretary handle it when you told her who you were?
VB: She apologized and said she was so sorry. But I knew what the jest of it was. She looked at “Van Pelt” and expected another face, which was okay. I was used to that.
RS: Back in the day Velvet, if you were a Smith or a Stevenson they probably would have presumed you were black. But very few blacks had names like Van Pelt and Velvet. I can understand that. Even today when I hear some of the names of black people, I might think to myself, that doesn’t sound like a black name. You can’t go by the names anymore to distinguish anyone’s ethnic background anymore, but back in our early childhood, you could.
AS: When you look at the names today’s kids are giving their children, they are hampering them. The “Sheniqua’s” and so forth. You can name your child what you want, but you do have to think of the consequences down the road.
EH: How were the relationships between the black and white students, since whites were the predominant group?
AS: Speaking for myself coming from McCulloch School, we had a lot of white friends. And we had some white friends at Harmar too. Being involved with sports, you’re around all ethnic groups. So we didn’t really have any problems. The majority of us got along well. There were some flare-ups naturally, but the majority of the kids at Central got along well. We still had our cliques, though. We ran in certain groups and others ran in their groups.
EH: What about interracial dating?
AS: That was a “no no.” But, it happened. They frowned on it and didn’t like it. If you were caught taking a young Caucasian lady home or downtown and the police stopped you, you’d probably go to jail.
RS: Archie, I don’t think any of the athletes during our time dated White girls. I know you didn’t, I didn’t, and Cletus Edmonds didn’t. Preston Underwood and Jimmy Martin didn’t. But, it was a common thing. Many of the young people who were our age as you know, many of them ended up going to Boy’s School, because they got caught dating white girls and their parents were not fond of that. They were good people, but they ended up going to Boy’s School. If they were a little older, they would have had a felony behind their name. Often the term “Statutory Rape” was used. I’m glad they didn’t bother our black girls too much back then.
One thing I can say about back then, we blacks in Fort Wayne had not absorbed the spirit in other cities where blacks were being more progressive, and we got a little complacent. Even though we could go to school with whites and could disagree with them, we still knew our place. And our place was Eliza Street, Hayden Street, Madison Street and we had limitations. You would not go into white areas of the city. You would see them in school and would not fight with them, but they had certain enjoyments that we were not exposed to. How many of us were exposed to high school drama? How were involved in their special clubs in high school? We didn’t get involved in those things. All of our social activities were centered around the McCulloch Center.
EH: With that being your reality, how did the social conditions not hamper your self-confidence?
VB: It all comes from home. First, I had a strong mother and father. I kind of knew what I wanted to do at an early age. I didn’t want to work for anyone, that’s why I started out in business for myself until I started my family. I think in being a female, and having a strong father figure at home, which the kids don’t have a lot of that today, no one could tell me anything that my mother and father had not already instilled in me from home. So I think it made me a little more sure of what I was, what I could do and I wasn’t afraid to take a chance. I wasn’t afraid to step out there and go beyond the boundaries. But, I think in being a female, I wasn’t exposed to things most of the males would have seen. In talking to Archie earlier, he was telling me about a section of town he was very familiar with. In fifth or sixth grade, I would not have known anything about that. I never rode a bike. McCulloch Center was our world. In school, I was in the Republican Club. I don’t know how I fit in because there were 19 in that group and there were two blacks. So in being girls, we just got along better. Not that we didn’t get upset with one another about different things that were going on, we handled it differently.
EH: At that time weren’t most blacks Republicans?
RS: They were called Lincoln Republicans. There might be a few Lincoln Republicans around today. They were called Lincoln Republicans because, as we know from history, Abraham Lincoln was the president responsible for freeing the slaves. So blacks clung to the Republican Party for a long time. If you go back and study history, you’ll find it was the Democratic Party that was against civil rights and voting rights and it was the Republicans who were supporting those issues. It kind of flip-flopped when President Roosevelt came on the scene and later on John F. Kennedy and President Johnson.
You go back and look at Frederick Douglas when he said, “It’s a poor black man that would ever vote as a Democrat.” That’s changed now because you get a bad feeling if someone is black and Republican. That’s a way of saying how far we have come because we all have individual rights and freedom of opinions.
EH: Wasn’t that at the time when Malcolm X called Democrats white supremacists?
AS: The power of the Democratic Party was in the south. Today, the reason most blacks won’t vote Republican is because the then Democratic Party, hijacked the today’s Republican Party. The southern Democrats were called Dixiecrats. These Democrats moved over to the Republican Party because of the civil rights movement and when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Dixiecrats hijacked the Republican Party. That’s why we have the problems today with Republicans. When you say today’s Republicans are radical people, look where they came from. They came from the Dixiecrats of the south.
EH: Were all 1960s blacks considered black Militants?
AS: If you raised your voice toward someone and said you can’t do this to me or my people or if you said going in the back door is wrong, you were a radical. If you had a voice of your own to say this is what you believe in, what you’re doing to me is wrong, you were a radical.
EH: How did you not let that social norm detour your freedom of expression?
RS: I think Velvet answered it best when she said, the home setting. Our parents, like most parents in the 1940s and 50s, wanted better opportunities for their children. They taught us our morals at home. Way before there was a Martin Luther King talking about non-violence, our parents taught us about turning the other cheek, doing what was right and to resolve issues by ways other than fighting. It was instilled in us to become over comers before we had the opportunity. As time went by, we saw and we knew that it was time for a change and it was time for us to step up and say what was right and what was wrong. In times past, we just took it and went forward. I’m so glad, Archie, that things are no longer like when we were playing ball because we were limited to McCulloch Center. If there was a basketball game in a public park two or three blocks away, we knew not to go over there because that was the White people’s area and we were not welcome. But I’m glad that things are different today.
Velvet, do you know I have a grandson and he’s number one in his class and has been for about five years in Fishers, Ind., the white suburban part of Indianapolis? His dad is an attorney and his mom is a school teacher. I said he should be a successful student. He lives in a $500,000 home and this kid, Archie, doesn’t know his best friend is a white girl. He doesn’t have the baggage that we have. All he knows is that she’s his best friend. He doesn’t realize she is white and a girl. He’s just out there in a middle-income area doing the best he can, socializing with doctors’ and bankers’ kids. He doesn’t have the baggage with him that goes along with discrimination and so forth. He just knows to be the best he can be.
EH: Even though that’s a good mindset to have, if he inherited your genes, there may be a darkness to his hue. As blacks mature in this society, at some point he may be judged because of his skin color. Velvet, how does he process this possibility of the inevitable without getting angry at society?
VB: There are certain income areas inside the box where it’s okay to fit in. Even when he comes out of that, you have to be accepted on both sides. Coming from this status to this status, you’re still black. You’re just black rich, or black poor. That’s still saying, we still have to fight. As well as I did in school and my mother never having to take care of things and having to look the white man in the face, as she always said, “Don’t have me coming up there having to look them white people in the face, I send you to school to get an education.” She never had to do that, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t have to fight.
I remember one time in gym class. You can only take so much. We were playing volleyball. You know how you pick your sides. You have a predominately black side, with three or four whites, and the other side is all white. When one side is winning, the other side may get a little angry. A girl threw her shoe through the net, and it just so happened to hit me in the face. I can remember saying to myself, “Okay, I can accept this. It was an accident.” Then she decided to say what she had to say and that went beyond the boundary. So I had to check that and that was my first fight in school.
EH: From speaking with others, they told me you may have been a small person, but you never backed down.
VB: I could stand my ground. But they knew, I did not cause problems, I did my school work never missing a day, never tardy, but you could not walk over me. So this is when they find your militancy, so I guess I was about black power.
Click here to go to Part 3 (1963 North Side and Central basketball game & fight)